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School Districts Increasingly Rely on Referenda to Meet Spending Needs

Voters in about 50 Wisconsin school districts will decide next Tuesday whether to pay more.

The state imposed revenue caps on districts 20 years ago to rein in property tax increases. Districts can only raise so much money from property owners. If districts want more, they have to ask voters, and voters must agree.

In recent years, state leaders cut funding for schools, but approved Act 10. It gives districts the ability to control employee benefit spending. But some school districts have concluded, they need more.

School districts can ask voters for a couple things, according to Dale Knapp of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

“One, they can ask for a permanent increase in their revenue limit. Or the can ask for a temporary one, say 3-5 years,” Knapp says.

When it comes to permanent increases, Knapp says voters agree only 33 percent of the time. The temporary increases are more popular. Voters approved more than half of those requests.

“And I think that goes to, in some degree, the wisdom of the voters, that what they’re saying is ‘no, we’re not going to give you a permanent blank check; rather, we’re willing to give you some money, we want to see how you’re spending the money, and then if you still need it come back after that five years or whatever and ask again,’ and you’re seeing more and more of that,” Knapp says.

The amount of money districts seek varies widely. For example, next week, the Glendale-River Hills district will ask for less than $1 million a year, over each of the next five school years. It would help maintain programs. On the other hand, Racine Unified will ask voters for $8.5 million dollars for this school year and each of the next 14 years. The district would use the money to pay a variety of expenses, including building safety and modernization.

Many referenda seek money for building projects. Dan Rossmiller works for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He says building projects fall into two categories.

“The first is where a district is, for example, growing or its buildings are simply outdated, they don’t have the chemistry labs or the career and technical education types of facilities that they need to offer students the kind of courses that will prepare them for the jobs of today and tomorrow,” Rossmiller says.

Rossmiller says the second category involves maintenance that districts don’t want to delay further.

“If they put these major types of maintenance projects off long enough, eventually the job becomes too big, it’s new boilers, it’s a new roof, where the amounts of money involved are great enough that they have to by law go to the voters and ask them for permission,” Rossmiller says.

There are other reasons school districts ask voters for more money, according to Christina Brey of WEAC, the state teachers union. She says some want to maintain staffing levels and upgrade technology. Brey says needs have become acute in Wisconsin’s rural districts. They face special challenges.

“They cover a lot of territory, which means that their transportation costs are very high. We’re seeing districts increasingly that are facing declining student enrollment, and while students are going down we still need to keep the doors open,” Brey says.

Brey says the number of districts turning to referenda is growing because many have tightened their belts as much as they can.

Dale Knapp of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance says another complicating factor is that school revenue has not kept pace with inflation. He doesn’t foresee ballot questions as a long-term solution. Knapp says it might be time for the state to put more funding decisions back into the hands of local school boards and administrators.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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